That’s the general election over then. I’ve been working on an election campaign over the past 15 months and so have been keeping my views on the situation quiet.
Now that it is all over I have to come out and say that, in the main, the communications from the main parties has been disappointing. When you look at the successful communications going on around you all day, every day there really has been something lacking.
Hope or fear?
In the run up to an election a political party can run two kinds of message. You either try and sell hope or instil fear. This year I’ve seen plenty of fear but little hope.
In a classic advertising campaign you need a large measure of positivity to go with the negative. Heinz would never tell you chips tasted bland without promoting ketchup as a way of adding taste.
Gillette will quite show you how bad a one-bladed razor is. Then they’ll always tie in the beautiful smoothness that will come from their latest multi-bladed innovation.
Negativity has it’s uses in communications. It can define a problem but just because you’ve highlighted an issue it doesn’t mean you get a transaction. You may frightened me into not voting for a party . That doesn’t mean you’ve persuaded me to vote for you. At most negativity is a job half done.
The whole point of political communication is to influence behaviour just like an advertisement. A good persuasive advert sharply defines a problem then straight away offers you a convenient solution. During the election campaign there wasn’t much solving going on.
A good campaign?
The word campaign is another parallel with the world of communications. As I see it none of the main parties ran a good overall communication campaign.
Can you tell me any of the parties’ campaign slogan? Take a minute and think about it. They were present on a lot of the literature. They appeared on a lot of the event branding. Can you tell me what each party really was about apart from “don’t vote for him, vote for me”. The main parties just didn’t have that big idea and vibrantly make it come alive.
They needed a big overriding thought they could turn into a slogan. They needed to repeat that slogan lots until it sunk in. They needed a common, positive, theme that they could come back to time and time again. Doing that would have got across a solid idea of what they were about.
There wasn’t a party telling me everyday that they want a brighter Britain where everyone has a chance to thrive. No party was promising a government that would be there to care for us from the cradle to the grave.
Paint the picture?
Instead of giving us a solid picture of what they stood for and what they wanted to achieve they focussed too much on the negative. While I can’t tell you their big and positive ideas I can tell you how they tried to position their competition. Labour wanted us to see the Tories as the party for the rich only. The Tories wanted us to see Labour as economically and politically inept.
As I’ve said before they were good at defining the problem. They just couldn’t communicate their solutions.
Someone could have gained a big advantage to here. The opinion polls were extremely close. The parties needed to do something bold to covert the floaters into voters. Negative messages just don’t sink in as well as positive ones. They just cement the biases people already have. They don’t do much to give you a boost.
In fact constant negativity can be a turn off. We’ve all known someone in life who spends so much time pointing out the flaws in others that it’s not much fun being with them.
Features over benefits.
The parties became too in thrall of the 24-hour news and social media cycle. They all seemed to have a new initiative to talk about every day. Just when you’d heard something new there was another new pledge just around the corner.
There are two problems with this. First it’s hard to keep up, indeed only a few political junkies would even try. Second they never joined it all up to make one message you heard over and over.
This led to too much talk of the features and not enough talk of the benefits.
I could tell you a new washing machine has a mega-fast spin speed, a 13 inch door and 12 drier settings. It’s got some good features.
Or I can tell you that if you use it to wash your clothes it will care for them like no other machine. You’ll feel on top of the world every time you get dressed. Benefits generally make a deeper impression than features.
Neither of the main parties tried to paint a picture in the electorate’s heads about what life would be like with them in government. The spent too much time talking about the weaknesses of others and jumping from promise to promise. More time painting a picture of a positive future would have been time well spent.
They’re selling a promise, if you can picture that promise it makes it more real and tangible in the voters head.
This lack of clear, consistent and powerful communications seemed to be down to some basic ineptitude coupled with a lack of knowledge and strategic brains.
The problems I’ve seen here remind me of many big and long-established brands. In this internet connected world they are so scared of a bad reaction that they end up saying nothing worthwhile. However experience shows it is the brands that say big and bold things that stand out more and win people over.
Yet there were a couple of aspects of the parties’ communications that were awful and must have been deliberate. They came about due to poor media training.
That’s a very good question. Let me avoid it.
There was a lack of authenticity on display. Politicians communicating in a style they were visibly uncomfortable with. “That’s a good question Jenny, thank you for asking that”. It was awkward, obviously deliberate and not at all comfortable to see.
On Leaders’ Question Time it was noticeable that the audience picked the leaders up on the fact they hadn’t actually answered the questions they were asked.
Good media training teaches you to move skilfully from answering the question to making the point you want to make. Bad media training teaches you to ignore the question and say what you want to regardless. The drawback with this is that nearly everyone paying attention notices. As soon as you don’t even look like you’re answering your credibility plummets.
People wonder what you’re trying to hide. If they don’t want to answer the question the real answer must be terrible. Or are they so arrogant they think the actual question doesn’t matter? Are they so full of themselves they think normal conversation rules don’t apply to them?
If you’re a media trainer teaching politicians to avoid questions you might think that you’re super slick. In fact you’re charging under false pretences. I know the whole point is not to get in trouble by saying something you’ll regret. This reality is you’re just turning your politician into human Corn Flakes. Everyone knows they exist but they don’t make much of an impression.
If your media training strategy is so defensive you’re setting yourself up to get beaten.
It’s like a football manager sending his team out each week not to lose. It might work some weeks but it won’t work others. And he’s never going to win the league.
These criticisms are of the main political parties. Some of the smaller parties did much better. They gave a clear impression of what they were about and what they stood for. They much more engaged in being authentic and answering the questions. As a result the ‘others’ got a bigger slice of the vote this time round.
There are lots of problems with politics in the UK right now but if one of the main parties can get its communications together and work hard on how they can present their ideas in a clear and vibrant way to the public then next time there might be a winner that is head and shoulders above the rest.
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